Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"Security" excuse for legislating racism

REMEMBER the row about the Jews of Syria? In a campaign not dissimilar to the much bigger one over Soviet Jews, the Syrian regime was condemned over oppressive restrictions on Jewish life, but more especially for prohibiting Jews from travelling abroad. We heard about the plight of Jewish women who longed to be allowed to join their would-be husbands.

Most of the restrictions were removed, except travel, and following a meeting between Asad and American President Jimmy Carter in 1977, the Syrian president began to permit around two dozen Jewish women each year to join grooms-to-be in the United States to correct a gender imbalance in the community.

Still the issue continued to be raised. I was wearing a colourful tee shirt one evening with an artistic picture of Jerusalem rooftops and the one word "Palestine", when an American academic called Werner Cohn took umbrage. What was I doing about "The Jews of Syria"? he demanded. I forgot to ask him what he was doing, being too struck by the Pavlovian conditioning which led the professor to react strongly to a simple word and piece of art that more ordinary folk might have taken as a tourist promotion.

I did suggest to him that the Palestinian people were not responsible for the policies of the Syrian government. After all they had suffered from it enough, arguably more than the Jews had. (The odd thing was, this belligerant American had been introduced to me as some kind of leftist).

In 1992 the Syrian government lifted its travel restrictions, and large numbers of Syrian Jews emigrated, though interestingly, not many chose Israel. Since then, having tried their chances in France and the United States, quite a few have been trickling back to Syria. But rather than go into a subject about which I know far too little, I have just been reminded of the "Syrian brides" row and the issue of family re-unifications by news from Israel.

On Monday, reporting for the Toronto Globe and Mail from Jerusalem, Carolynne Wheeler described the effect of a new Israeli law on Hatem Qubeileh and Raneen Jafaari. The electrician from Nablus and his Arab-Israeli wife live, for now, in Shfa-Amer in Galilee with their two small daughters. But as a Palestinian, he is allowed to be in Israel only with state permission and his temporary permit runs out in October.

They had hoped their worries of forced separation might be put to rest, with Israel's Supreme Court facing several petitions against the law that prevents Palestinians from living with their Israeli spouses and children inside Israel. But yesterday, the court narrowly upheld the Nationality and Entry Into Israel law, ruling 6-5 that the state's security needs overrule any encroachment on individual rights.

"I am afraid of having to live separated from my family," Mr. Qubeileh says. As an Israeli citizen, his wife cannot live in Nablus in the West Bank. Even if she could, she does not want to give up visits with her parents and siblings in Israel. "We live in tension and worry about the fate of our family," he said. "This is a racist, terrible decision for my family."

The law, which started as a cabinet resolution in 2002, was passed as a temporary order by the Knesset the following year and has been renewed annually since. It followed a suicide bombing in Haifa carried out by a Palestinian who had acquired Israeli citizenship. Palestinian men over 35 and women over 25 may apply for residency permits to be with their Israeli spouses, but permission is frequently denied. Critics say its aim is to limit the number of Arabs in Israel.

Dissenting judges argued that the law violates the rights of Arab-Israeli citizens to marry whomever they choose. But Justice Mishael Cheshin, leading the majority opinion in the 263-page ruling, wrote that "the benefit it [the law] brings to the security and lives of the residents of Israel outweighs the harm it causes to some citizens of Israel."

State prosecutor Yochi Genessin said that 6,000 of some 22,000 requests for family unification have been granted since 1993. Yoav Loeff, a spokesman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which petitioned against the law, estimates that hundreds or thousands of families are living apart, or with one spouse under virtual house arrest for fear of being caught in Israel illegally. "This high court today failed to fulfill its most important role, which is protecting human rights," he said."It is a sad day."

Although the decision affects primarily Arab-Israelis, who are most likely to marry Palestinians, there are also cases of Jewish-Israelis who must live apart from their Palestinian spouses, Mr. Loeff said. Israeli ballet dancer Yasmin Avisher and her husband, Palestinian sculptor Osama Zaater, petitioned the court this year for the right to live together after he was denied an Israeli permit and she was denied permission to live in Ramallah, in the West Bank. There may yet be change to the law. Justice Minister Haim Ramon told Army Radio yesterday that he intended to amend the present citizenship act and "make a law that will apply to everyone."

Here is a comment sent to us by Professor Avrahom Oz, of the University of Haifa:

Dear Friends,

The Supreme Court of Justice of Israel has written yesterday, the eve of the Palestinian Nakba day, a dark page into the brief, if eventful, history of the State of Israel. By a very close vote (6 to 5), the majority ruling has rejected the petitions brought before the Court to abolish the four years old amendment to the citizenship law, preventing Palestinians from requesting residency status in Israel by virtue of family unification with Israeli citizens. The ruling approves the situation, existing since the amendment was instituted in 2002 (and annually renewed), in which Palestinians who wish to marry Arab Israelis cannot obtain permanent residency status or Israeli citizenship. This amendment, obviously directed against the Arab citizens of Israel, is manifestly a racially-based legislation, which marks yet another alarming step of the State of Israel on the road of becoming a state of Apartheid.

The Supreme Court's majority ruling was followed by a statement of
the new Minister of Justice, Haim Ramon, announcing the immediate preparation for a new legislation, designed to reflect the majority ruling in upgrading the temporary amendment (due to expire in July) into a permanent, constitutional law. The new legislation, Ramon said, will legally formalize the principle that, "a sovereign state is entitled to prevent the subjects of an enemy state gaining status in its territory."

Granted, the fear of terrorism is real nowadays, everywhere in the world, and in particular in the Middle East. The latest, pointless and cruel suicide bomb in Tel Aviv, which murdered 11 innocent civilians and injured many more, went less than half a mile from my house, in a small lunch bar I use to frequent very often. I know the fear.
Yet the response to this fear has often compromised the welfare of society more than terrorism itself. Security, to paraphrase Dr Johnson, has become the refuge of the racist.

The President of the Supreme Court, Justice Aharon Barak, was one of the five justices in the sane, minority opinion, to note the danger of compromising democratic rights in the name of security. In his ruling (outvoted by the majority) he wrote: "Democracy does not impose a sweeping ban, thereby cutting off its citizens from their partners and not allowing them to live a family life ... It does not give its citizens the option of living in it without their partners or leaving the country ... Democracy cedes a certain amount of security in order to obtain an immeasurably greater amount of family life and equality."

More crucial, however, was the point made by Barak's fellow justice, Justice Ayala Procaccia, also in the minority group, who went
even further in explicitly expressing her doubts whether the majority
argument came in response to a genuine security need. The real motivation for the majority ruling, she hinted, was "the demographic threat" to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

The facts provided by the security establishment, as quoted today in Ha'aretz, barely justify the law, since out of the tens of thousands who have become Israeli citizens since 1967 in the framework of family unification, only 26 have been questioned on suspicion of abetting terrorism. Since 1993, 16,000 requests for family unification have been submitted. Neither does this number justify, Ha'aretz goes on to argue, the demographic frenzy at which Justice Procaccia rightly alluded.

The relatively small number of people suspected of abetting terrorism, says Ha'aretz editorial, does not justify the blow the Knesset dealt to
family unification in general, nor does it justify the injustice done in
particular to hundreds of married couples who were barred from living in Israel, because the law applied retroactively to couples whose cases were pending.

Yet the symbolic meaning of the Court's approbation of the
amendment bears a greater resonance than its practical implications for many individual families. It is easy to fence oneself behind the argument of the need of democracy to defend itself against an enemy state. In order to gain such privilege, one must allow the creation of a state for a stateless nation. Jewish Israelis should be the first to recognize this. Today, the Palestinians mark the Nakba day, the national disaster the Palestinians suffered in 1948. The Nakba has not yet pervaded the consciousness of the Jewish majority: it is still exclusively commemorated by an overwhelming small number of Jews, prompted by less than popular organizations such as Zochrot" ("remembering" in the fem. plural, in Hebrew).

Israelis may choose to interpret the causes for the Palestinian national disaster in a variety of ways. The fact remains that about five million Palestinians living outside the borders of the State of Israel do not necessarily reside where they do out of their own choice. The 3/4 million of Israeli Arabs, denied by the Israeli citizenship law the choice of having a family with persons of their choice, join them in being the victims of a most peculiar sense of "equality," exercised by a state bragging to be "the only democracy in the Middle East." The ironic gift presented by the majority
ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court for this year's Nakba day is appalling. It is a double edged blow, dealt as well at the core of Israeli democracy, leading it not that slowly, but steadily, toward the path of Apartheid, the very opposite of democracy.

I call upon my colleagues in the Israeli academy and the arts, so keen
about fighting any discrimination of Israely academe and culture, to publicly and clearly disown yesterday's disgraceful ruling. Every person cherishing democracy, within or outside the borders of the State of Israel, should raise her/his voice in protest against such a twisted concept of the best system of government still known to humanity.

For Better
A. Oz --

Professor Avraham Oz,
Department of Hebrew and Comparative Literature
University of Haifa,
Mount Carmel, 31905
Haifa, Israel.

Talking of "demographic frenzy", I should mention that it was Avi Oz who last year drew our attention to his own university hosting a conference on Israel's "demographic problem" - code for "too many Arab babies".

Who knows, maybe some of those academics in the United States and Britain who keep proclaiming their belief in freedom and complaining of "double standards" will care to engage with this example of how the "only democracy in the Middle East" is behaving. That's if, unlike Werner Cohn, they are not too busy trying to censor tee shirts.



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